5 Life Lessons from a Former Mean Girl
Have you ever woken up with the lingering remnant of a once-forgotten memory? Usually it's a repressed trauma, like an alien abduction or the knowledge that your middle name is Gaylord. In other words, they're memories that require years of therapy to forget again. One day this repressed memory phenomenon happened to me. Only instead of waking up with the memory of tattooing happy and sad theater masks to my inner thighs, I suddenly remembered that I used to be a bully. A flood of childhood incidents came back to me, each more awful than the last, all of them changing my entire view of myself.
The effect was devastating. So devastating that I immediately purged all of my guilt into a mocha-fueled confession session on my Twitter account, as the Torah requires. Still, the guilt of all those bad acts lingered. According to the one-eyed gypsy I met at the carnival the other day, unless I use my shameful past for good, the guilt of being a bully will haunt me forever. And also my ears will turn to frogs by midnight tonight. So I'm turning my shame into wisdom for all of you.
Bullying Is a Symptom of Bigger, Badder Things
My personal journey into badness started when I was about 7 years old with this incident:
Now, you might chalk up a little dirty graffiti as innocent childhood shenanigans. But you don't know me and my weird thing with swear words. I don't say them. If you go back and look at the dozens of articles I've written for Cracked, you'll only find a handful of cuss words. What you will find instead are substitutions so archaic and unnatural that I've turned down multiple offers to go back in time and write movies for the 1940s.
Okey-dokey, artichokey! Farts.
But in second grade, I was in a different state of mind. My teacher was a harda$$. She said I couldn't tie my jacket around my waist, that I had to tie it over my shoulders like some kind of baby WASP. She said I pronounced "aunt" wrong. (I didn't -- I pronounced it like white people say it.) She made me sit by her desk at all times. Oh, and I was flunking out of second grade. I can look back now, as an adult and a mom and a former teacher, and see that second grade me was overwhelmed. But when you're a little kid sitting at a little desk and the "incompletes" and "Fs" and notes home about how much you suck start piling up, it's easy to rebel. So I turned bad. Super bad.
Terrible. I'm cringing at the memory as I write this. But shame on Mrs. Dummy for giving a showoff bad girl a great setup for physical comedy at the expense of a bullied barely fat kid. Because this interaction -- the walk that I made to the poor classmate -- took about 10 freaking minutes to happen. Mrs. Uglybutt gave up on waiting and kept teaching class about cursive or whatever as I made micro-steps across the room. The whole class watched, enthralled. Every inch forward got a laugh.
When I finally got to this poor, harassed child, I acted like my arms weighed like planets as I lifted them. I'd like to think I gently whispered "I'm so sorry" as I gave the boy my horrible hug, but I was really glorying in all the attention. In fact I made a crying face and wrapped my arms around him like he was a beach ball, not actually touching him whatsoever. Hilarious. Not only were there no consequences for being a complete jerk, but I turned the whole episode into a way to get attention and avoid my work, which was what I really wanted in the first place. It was a terrible lesson.
So if you're a parent and your kid is getting picked on, of course you should do something about it. But if you're a parent and you find out your own kid is the one teasing other kids, dig deeper. There's an amazing chance they're struggling with other stuff. It's like the one thing Hollywood gets right about bullies -- there's almost always a crap stew happening in a bully's head or home or karate class.
Which brings me to my next point ...
Bullying Is an Evolutionary Strategy
We're all born bullies. Reaching up for teats that don't belong to us, pooping all over people, demanding attention at all hours of the night. Empathy and suckling avoidance are drilled into us over our toddler years, but some kids take longer than others to pick up on appropriate human interactions. That's why you see preschool kids who won't share their blocks while others stand in the corner crying, too scared to talk to anyone but their moms and their mom's boobs.
I think a few of us deliberately subvert our social skills to get ahead or just keep up. By the time I hit third grade, I wasn't just mean, I had it in my head that I was a little tough girl who needed to pre-emptively strike everyone within my radius. You would, too, if you looked like the little boy from Pete's Dragon.
I think I modeled my whole personality on Jodie Foster's Disney years persona. Only Jodie usually stuck up for the little guy and I was all about bringing them down to my level in a triumphant headlock. Like the time I got into a fight with another girl named Christy. I think the fight was about who was the best Christy/Kristi.
There are so many things to explain here. Like that the other girl had an Amish look about her because of her religion. Long hair, long skirt, no cutting of bangs. I was probably wearing a backward cap and chewing a slug of tobacco. This might also be a good time to mention that I'm now and have always been at least a head shorter than everyone else in the room. So going forward, picture each interaction with a tiny little patched-up ragamuffin looking up at her victims. Also, this particular incident was a pinching fight. That's when you take turns pinching each other to see who cries first, a thing I'm pretty sure I invented then and there.
Over the course of one school year, I evolved from lashing out to actively picking fights with kids. I wasn't the best Kristi, that was for sure. I also moved houses twice in that year, changed schools once, and started figuring out I was poor. I stopped wearing shoes when I went outside to play and nobody noticed. Shockingly, my third grade crush/stalking victim wasn't interested when I asked around if he liked me.
What do you do when the object of your obsession rejects you? Or when you push his girlfriend onto the ground at the playground and no one even cares? Answer: Get MEANER.
That kid's mother was probably also special needs, and I know this because she threw her shoe at me, and who would do that to a tiny little 8-year-old girl? Don't answer that. The point of these stories is that hyper-aggression seemed like a reasonable way to control my environment. The very first person who actually responded to my meanness was a mother who probably wasn't right in the head herself. Everyone else let me get away with it for a while, because who wants to engage with an angry hobbit?
Anyone who's actually been in a fistfight knows that probably isn't true. I didn't know that. But I sure did tell neighborhood kids that the best fist has a knuckle sticking out. I was like a little guy in a prison pretending to have STDs so the big guys would leave him alone. But then totally doing pinch fights with the other little guys so they'd stay in their place. Survival of the fittest, baby.
Chris Brown Is Mentally Unwell
Let's be very clear here. Physically beating someone up to the point where they're beat up at all is not bullying, it's being a crazy person. Pushing fragile teens so far that they're driven to suicide isn't bullying, it's being a sociopath. And we can use the word "cyberbullying" all we want, but if you're relentlessly and systematically torturing someone over and over again, you might be a "cyberpsychopath." I could make a horrible "you might be a redneck"-themed joke out of that statement but I don't think anyone would laugh because those aren't funny. Do you see what I just did there? I cyberbullied Jeff Foxworthy!
You might be a millionaire when no-name writers mock your world-famous joke format!
Part of maturing from a kid to an adult is overcoming the cruel streak that runs through our DNA. But don't confuse snark with unrepentant abuse -- the kind that memorializes your crime with a neck tattoo. There's a difference between weird passive-aggressive behavior ...
... and actually using those shivs to stab people. I never got around to that part. In fact, I had way more fun coloring them in rainbow patterns after playing with My Little Ponies and cutting Barbie hair and wishing it would grow back.
P.S. My little weird shiv-making sessions were intermixed with plenty of healthy social interactions. I was invited to birthday parties, I always had people to eat with at lunch, and I was always picked to be top of people pyramids. By fifth grade, I was a regular on the slumber party circuit. My report card notes home weren't "Kristi is a b*tch, do something about her"; they were "Kristi talks too much and is a distraction to others." I spent a lot of time in the isolation desk, the elementary school's version of the cone of shame.
But once given a dose of my own medicine, I shut off the crazy. One Sunday school teacher took me aside and told me I was too sassy and he'd spank me if he were my dad. I cried. He quit soon after. A lot of Sunday school teachers quit after me. One pastor called me out during church for the same badness. I cried then, too. My fifth grade teacher turned the tables on my sorry self with this exchange in front of the whole class:
"Are you in the GT program?"
"Sure fooled me."
(Kristi puts her head down and cries on her desk. End scene.)
She metaphorically slapped the bully right out of me and put me in my place. After that it was over. The brattiness was done and the moody blues of junior high and crying jags over not being able to get my bangs to cascade just right were on their way. You can't say that about legitimately psychotic people. They never get over it.
Cruel Humor Is Lazy Humor
So if you've gotten this far, you probably hate me, or the version of me that I used to be. But guess what, li'l homeys -- we're all bullies now. Only instead of teasing the fat kids, we use social media to tease celebrities, religious people, Walmart customers, and Two and a Half Men. So we're mostly still just making fun of the fat kids, but without the benefit of showing our faces when we do it. Congratulations, everybody! We suck!
I know what you're thinking. Some targets are totally justified, like Chris Brown, for example. Remember that time Twitter comedian Jenny Johnson got him good for being such a loser?
Sorry, but Chris Brown is sick in the head, which makes him too easy a target. In 2012, 65 percent of toddlers' first words were digs at Chris Brown, most of them in the form of tweets. Making fun of Chris Brown is like making fun of a quadriplegic blind man who's also retarded in the retarded sense of the word "retarded." You can do it, but good luck feeling great about yourself afterward.
Think of it this way. You're at a strip club and you want to give the guy a dollar for his sexy moves. You can throw it on the stage, all sloppy like, then run back to your seat and high-five your girlfriends and send a tweet to let everyone know how much fun you're having, or you can do things the hard way. Try to get the dollar in his man panties. It's hard because he's wiggly and his oily skin is getting your dollar slippery and the spotlight is making it hard to see. But if you're going to do the deed, you might as well not take the coward's route. Comedy is the same way.
In preparing for this column, I asked a few of my Cracked co-workers this question:
Robert Brockway said this, jokingly.
Daniel O'Brien said this, not jokingly.
Soren Bowie is under the impression I make good soup.
But then Robert also said this, which was very nice and is totally not printed out and pasted to my office wall next to the spray-painted words "BROCKWAY (heart heart heart)!"
Everyone else had other things to do than massage my fragile ego with responses to a not very hard question. But that's OK, because I don't need the approval of specifically Adam Brown to know that I outgrew bullyhood. I outgrew bullyhood hard.
The lesson here is that people change and your personality is not set for life. This is crucial information when you're a parent or a human being, because it's so easy to just write off people for jerkiness. Actually, it's not easy, it's lazy. It's like choosing to look at a two-dimensional copy of a picture of someone when the real person is right in front of you. Fortunately, while I was a colossal pain of a student, I also had teachers who looked past the brattiness and nurtured my good parts, but not in a sexually abusive way.
So cheer up, parents of bullies, brats, whiners, and toughies. Your kids might end up like me and Mike Tyson -- reformed. Just don't count on calling your child "The Mike Tyson of the Non-Boxing World," because that's my nickname. I will RIP YOUR GUTS OUT OF YOUR BELLY BUTTON HOLE IF YOU TRY TO STEAL IT.
For evidence of how much Kristi doesn't follow her own advice about lazy comedy, follow her on Twitter.